Friday, May 01, 2015

Old white men, gotta love ‘em

About once every four years or so, a magazine digs the ordinary-people-don’t-get-modern-art story out of a dusty file, smacks it around a bit, and lets it loose. This time it’s North & South’s (country folk) turn, probably to balance off Anthony Byrt’s enthusiasms in Metro (city folk). The writer is Mike White. He specializes in complex crime stories, has won truckloads of awards and studied at Cambridge, so it’s not a I-didn’t-know-any-better junior reporter at work here. 

The piece is titled … But is it art? and  here are the key points (plus - who could resist? - the odd comment).
  • First up is Simon Denny’s exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery. White plods through a relentlessly negative description before launching into the irresistible mocking of the wall texts. God only knows we’ve done it ourselves but this is six paras in so White is making his position pretty clear. The 'balance' stuff he brings up later can be put down to window dressing. So why the question mark in the title it's pretty clear from the get go that White knows exactly where he's going.
  • Next is Grahame Sydney (conservative landscape painter and regular contemporary art grouch). He gets to play the elitist card. 'They appear to be talking to themselves, rather than anyone else.'
  • White then drags up a few of the stock examples regularly used to beat up the 'high-brow' art world. Et al in Venice (c'mon that was 10 years ago), Dane Mitchell at Waikato (six years ago) and last year’s Walters Prize. The final flourish is a quote from another well-worn critic of contemporary art post 1990, Hamish Keith. 'I think this Walters Prize has pushed the boundaries beyond commonsense, beyond credibility, and really it has made a hoax, a joke out of the whole affair.'
  • White then raises his own colours a little higher and claims the art world thinks the public is 'hopelessly stupid', even using the phrase 'The Emperor’s new clothes' (insert laugh track here).
  • Enter the contemporary art defenders (aka 'balance'). Christina Barton argues that the debate over art is 'frequently oversimplified’ and that people like White 'constantly reiterate old arguments and draw those battle lines in a really unhelpful way.'
  • Wystan Curnow tells White that G. Sydney is 'living in a time warp' and that 'the inevitable rumpus around our Venice exhibits is tiresome.'
  • Thinking this pro-contemporary stuff is putting the balance thing out of whack, White reaches out to Vincent O’Sullivan, poet, retired academic and writer on (you guessed it) Grahame Sydney. O’Sullivan lashes out at the art establishment. 'It's a sort of priestcraft with them, that they know the words to say but everyone else doesn't.' A bit rich coming from a long term senior academic.
  • White follows up with print maker and art school educated Barry Cleavin who says he doesn’t want people explaining art to him and comes up with an insult directed at Wystan Curnow that’s a bit hard to work out.
  • The big gun is saved for last, a real insider ex-City Gallery curator Gregory O’Brien. He thought the art in the last Walters Prize was all old hat but is 'happy for the prize to exist' so that’s a relief. Then O’Brien, who is a painter himself, wonders why 'we always choose installation artists' for Venice and that we are “trying to put ourselves on the world stage as a young sexy creative country” in a way he finds 'fatuous'. O’Brien thinks Ralph Hotere (1931-2013) would be less fatuous.
  • Next up Courtney Johnston, director of the Dowse Art Museum, says that no art gallery sets out to 'alienate the public' (not hard to imagine what sort of question White would have to ask to get that response). She makes a pitch for something for everyone and adds a reminder of the geniuses who were decried and mocked in their own time (Monet, McCahon).
  • Heather Galbraith, this year’s Commissioner for Venice, makes the point that new art always takes time to fit in and that many, many loved artworks went through a phase of being reviled and that people just need to give any work that seems obscure a bit of time.'
  • The last word went to Creative NZ ‘s Chief Executive Stephen Wainwright. He thought the public’s right to give feedback was essential and “Inevitably some of it won’t be what we might prefer...”  
Encouragingly the only people White could find to trash contemporary art were five white males, with an average age of 70. 

Image: art cartoon by American painter Ad Reinhardt